Saturday, April 30, 2016

May Reading List: Kindle Books

 It seems like everyone who likes to read has an opinion on whether "real" books or e-books are better.  Purists swear by physical books - they like the comforting weight in their hands, the smell of the pages, and the smoothness of the paper.  A walk through a bookstore is magic to a reader.  Just browsing the aisles and touching different books is a satisfying experience, even if you don't buy them.  These elements combine to make a reading experience that a tablet just can't replicate.  It's not quite as easy to curl up with a cup of tea and an electronic screen. 

Those who prefer e-readers like the immediacy - you can buy a book online and read it instantly, including difficult to find titles. They also like the space-saving functionality of reading electronically.  You can contain a bookstore's worth of books behind a slim, small rectangle of plastic.  The ability to electronically highlight passages and take notes are also a plus for e-readers, not the mention the nifty little percentage in the corner that shows you how much of the book you've read so far.

I fall somewhere in the middle of these two camps. I love the feel of a physical book, but I appreciate the space-saving nature of my Kindle.  Simply put, I have too many books.  I have books spilling over my bookcases, stacked in piles on the floor and taking up shelf space in my closet.  I have books in plastic bins, books all over my classroom and books that other people have loaned me.  I simply don't have the space to contain all of the books I own.  The Kindle helps alleviate this issue, but my first instinct is still to go to the bookstore and buy a physical book before downloading one.

This doesn't mean that I don't buy Kindle books.  I do all the time, and then I almost immediately forget I have them and read out of the stacks on my bookcase.  The fact the the books on my Kindle aren't visually present means that they aren't on my mind.  When picking what I want to read, my eyes wander to my shelves, not to the e-reader plugged in under my nightstand.

This month, I aim to change up my habits a little.  During May, I'm going to read entirely from my Kindle. This way, I can finally get to all those books I've forgotten that I own and get in the habit of reading electronically.

I have way too many unread books on my Kindle to read them all in one month, but here are some that I would like to get to:

The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure by James Dashner - I read The Maze Runner in January as part of my science fiction month.  While this wasn't my favorite read, I would still like to finish the series and see how everything turns out.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - This was another novel I didn't get to during my month of science fiction.  This story of how humans must race to resettle on another planet after a catastrophic event on earth was a Goodreads Choice award nominee last year.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey - This novel about a childless couple who build a young girl out of snow was a Pulitzer Award nominee in 2013.  It's been languishing, unread, on my Kindle since 2012.

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits - This novel is about a young psychic who is recruited to track down a controversial artist.  The description sounds like fluff, but it's the winner of a few literary awards.  I bought this one at the same time as The Snow Child.  It's time to get it read!

The Girl Giant by Kristen Den Hartog - This one is about a girl born a giant, with some interesting emotional abilities.  Several Goodread reviews claim that this book defies categorization and explanation.  I'm excited to see what they're on about.

A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving: This is a classic book about a young boy who accidentally kills his friend's mother during a Little League baseball game and the events that follow that fateful event.  I want to be able to discuss this one with one of friends, who loves it deeply.

Bonus Round Books:
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

Will I survive without reading a physical book for a whole month?  Let's find out!

April 2016 Wrap Up

My month of reading only nonfiction has drawn to a close.  It's been a different kind of month reading only informational books, and I have to say that I really missed my fiction! I had a hard time keeping focused on some of these novels.  I read for an hour early in the morning, before work, and I had trouble staying awake sometimes. 

That's not to say I didn't enjoy myself though - I learned a whole lot too. For example, I now know how a human body decomposes, how to spark joy through cleaning my house, and how Victorian London dealt with their sewage.  I read about how two boys orchestrated the first school shooting and saw what happened when a celebrity turned his hand to teaching.  I watched an 8th grader try out fashion advice from the fifties and learned about the emotional complexities of animals. My brain is bursting with new knowledge and I am undoubtedly a better person for it.

Another hidden benefit of reading nonfiction was that it made for excellent conversation-starters.  No one cares about what's going on in a fiction novel, but nonfiction reading gives you endless facts to discuss with people, in which they will usually politely feign interest.  

In the end, I confirmed that fiction will always be my first love, but there's nothing wrong with throwing a little nonfiction into the mix every now and then.

Books Read
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
Spark Joy by Marie Kondo
Columbine by Dave Cullen
I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza
Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson
Popular by Maya Van Wagenen
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

Best of the Month: Stiff, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, Popular
Worst of the Month: No worsts!  All were pretty good.

Books I didn't get to, but am saving for later:
True Notebooks, A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

New Favorites:
I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, Stiff

I'm glad to be getting back to fiction again, but I'm glad that I chose this theme for April.  It was nice to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with a different kind of reading for a little while.  I proved to myself that I am more than capable of polishing off a thick nonfiction novel without getting too bored, and I won't hesitate to pick up these types of books in the future.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

"If you look at side-by-side drawings of human, elephant and dolphin brains, the similarities overwhelm the differences.  We are essentially the same, merely molded by long experience into different outer shapes for coping with different outer surroundings, and wired inside for special talents and abilities.  But beneath the skin, kin.  There is no other animal like us.  But don't forget: there are no other animals like each of them, either."

Have you ever watched an animal pacing back and forth in their cage at the zoo and wondered if it understood and was sad about its captivity? Have you ever given your dog a treat and considered whether she truly likes you or if she is merely reacting to the prospect of food?  Can animals experience joy, humor, and love?  These idle curiosities are what author and ecologist Carl Safina writes about in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. He examines the idea of whether animals have complex emotional lives and personalities, and if they do, what implications that would have regarding the way humans treat them.

While Safina discusses many different types of animals throughout his book, he focuses in on elephants, wolves and whales.  He tags along with scientists who observe these animals, and conveys their research and experiences, along with his own observations.  His writing reveals that these animals lead surprisingly rich lives and have distinct personalities.  For example, he discusses how elephants mourn and even bury their dead, showing a depth of feeling and awareness that humans generally consider to be unique to themselves.  He also shares the story of Twenty-one, a wolf so successful at leading his pack that those observing him considered him to be a "super wolf."  This wolf never lost a single fight, and also never killed any wolf he defeated, an unusual act of magnanimity that served to strengthen his leadership and ensure that his bloodline survived after his death (which, by the way, was caused by old age - almost unheard of for a wild wolf).  Of course he also tell the tragic story of Tilikum, Seaworld's most famous killer whale, who was most likely driven insane by his capture and captivity-- killing a total of three people.  It is worth noting that a free-living killer whale has never killed a human.  It has happened several times with whales in captivity.  All of these examples, plus numerous others, serve to illustrate the idea that animals have more going on in their heads than humans are willing to give them credit for.         

While a book about animal emotions could easily drift into non-scientific territory, Safina is careful to base his assertions on research and observations from scientists.  He establishes in the beginning of the novel that humans are a type of animal - a unique animal, of course, but an animal nonetheless.  He also asserts that all other animals are unique and capable of experiencing human-like emotions in their own different ways, on a sliding scale of complexity.  This is an interesting idea that immediately got me thinking about animals in a slightly different way.  I've always been interested in "smart" animals, like elephants and chimps, but I hadn't really considered the deep similarities that people share with them. Whether we are human, elephant, dolphin or wolf, we are all striving for the same general things in life - to survive, to reproduce, and to thrive.  We face different circumstances, have differently shaped bodies, and communicate in different ways, but what we share with each other is far more profound than what we don't.  It is harmful for humans to consider themselves as the pinnacle of all life.  It would be better to consider ourselves as uniquely suited to be successful in our environments - something that could be said of any animal, from a honeybee to a hyena.  Mutual respect and admiration should characterize our interactions with other animals.  It is a tragedy that it doesn't, as evidenced by how many species are being pushed slowly to extinction due to human actions.

Anyone who loves animals will be intrigued by Beyond Words.  It offers several thought-provoking insights that leave readers thinking about animals in a new way - as partners and friends instead of subordinates.  At times, the chapters seem to drag on a bit too long, but overall, the novel held my interest.  I really enjoyed this one and learned a lot of new information.  I think I actually like animals even more after reading this, and I didn't think that was even possible. I suppose I couldn't offer any higher praise than that.   

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

Middle school student Maya Van Wagenen considers herself a social outcast.  She's smart, geeky and has a mouthful of braces - which is the perfect combination to attract adolescent bullies.  Most of the time, she tries to just be invisible - to blend into the crowd.  Her deliberate anonymity changes, however, when she discovers Betty Cornell's 1950s guide to teen popularity in  a stack of old books.  Intrigued, she decides to try out its advice throughout her 8th grade year and see if Cornell's old-fashioned tips still work for modern teens.

What follows is a funny and honest memoir about a girl coming out of her shell, trying new things and meeting new people.  Cornell's popularity guide has Maya trying everything from squeezing into a girdle to wearing Vasoline on her eyelids, and she faithfully tries it all.  By the end of her final year in middle school, Maya has become more popular, but not in the way she expected.  It turns out that popularity isn't about sitting at the cool table at lunch after all.  It's something better.

I found Popular to be refreshing.  Maya, at only 14 years old, has written a memoir brimming with youth and humor.  Her inviting writing style encourages readers to feel each heartbreak and triumph right alongside her as she makes her way through the school year.  Her journey, which she conveys in diary format, is well-organized and deeply meaningful.  I often found myself asking what I would do in certain situations, or pondering how one truly measures popularity. 

While this was an easy read, it was still a thoughtful one, and one that I enjoyed very much.  As soon as I finished reading, I loaned this to one of my students-- another 8th grader who reminds me so much of Maya that I was making comparisons between the two of them all throughout the book.  There are a lot of Mayas in the world - shy, smart girls who could use a confidence booster. I think Popular could help a lot of them see life a bit more positively.

It is clear that Maya Van Wagenen is headed for a bright future at a writer.  Popular is an excellent first outing, and I can only imagine how her skills will grow with time and maturity.  This is one young lady to watch, and this book is one that everyone could benefit from reading.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Star Wars Dark Side Challenge 2016

So, it's been about a week now since my family and I braved the crazy Disney crowds and ran a Star Wars-themed 10K and half marathon in the same weekend.  I didn't train too well for it, because, as usual, I lacked the motivation to actually get out and practice.  Well, to be more specific, I fell down and scraped both knees and a palm a few weeks before the event and milked those injuries for all they were worth.  I actually did pretty well on the races themselves, I just was in a lot of pain afterwards. 

That being said, finishing was really awesome and I would totally do it again.

Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson

I love to read fiction from the Victorian time period.  In fact, Charles Dickens is one of my very favorite authors and I love the Bronte sisters and Oscar Wilde as well.  In light of this, it seemed like a natural fit for me to pick up Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson during my month of reading nonfiction.  This novel is all about how the Victorians dealt with various types of filth, and it paints quite a graphic picture of what is was like to live in London during this time period.

The chapters in this novel are arranged by types of filth, with topics ranging from garbage collection, to toilets, to cemeteries, to air pollution.  London at the beginning of the 1800s was a huge city without modern conveniences.  All travel was by horse.  There was no indoor plumbing.  There were no sewers.  There were no public restrooms.  Factories belched out huge quantities of soot into the air everyday.  Churchyard cemeteries were literally overflowing with corpses.  All this together created an intensely dirty and smelly environment. Jackson goes into detail on each of these topics, and more, to give readers a good idea of how unsanitary things were and how the Victorians worked to make improvements in these areas.

Indeed, Jackson shows that by the end of the time period, the Victorian had made some significant strides in public health.  Flush toilets were invented, an impressive sewer system was constructed under the streets of London, cemeteries were moved to large plots outside the city, public housing was being developed to alleviate the heinously filthy conditions of London's slums, and public restrooms were constructed in parks and other city spaces.  By the 1900s, conditions had definitely improved.  While the city was still far from being perfect in relation to filth management, the Victorian time period saw a number of innovations that made life a bit easier...and less disgusting.

One small criticism I had while reading this book was the amount of time spent discussing the governmental aspect of cleaning up. While I found the subject matter highly interesting, I still struggled to get through some of the chapters.  This was one of those books that I tended to fall asleep while reading, which is why it took me such a long time to finish.  Part of the issue was the endless political in-fighting that Jackson described.  Much like today, any innovation the government tried to put forward during this time period (especially one designed to help poor people) was challenged by self-interested conservatives.  It took forever to get anything done in service of public health, and describing all the various bills and committees that were formed and failed takes up a significant portion of the book.  I wish that a bit more focus had been placed on describing the actual living conditions and innovations of the time period, and less time on government troubles.  This isn't really Jackson's fault though, because history is history and he was just reporting the facts.  The facts, however, got pretty boring.  

All of this information makes perfect sense in hindsight, but I'd never thought about it before.  When I read a Victorian novel, I'm thinking about the fashion, the modesty and the manners.  I'm not thinking about how the characters were relieving themselves in a box in their basement that would have to be shoveled out later or how everyone would have been covered in a film of soot all the time.  This book, while boring at times,  was still fascinating, and will change the way I interpret the setting of books written during this period.  Sorry, Charles Dickens.  London in the 1800s just got a little less charming.  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

 In 2010, the famous actor Tony Danza decided to teach high school English for a year.  A&E filmed the experience for a short-lived reality show called Teach.  On its face, the premise of this experiment sounds absurd and potentially exploitive to the kids who would become Danza's students.  However, one chapter in to Danza's book about the experience will put any reader's mind at ease about his motives.  I really enjoyed this one.

I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had is Danza's own account of his year teaching tenth grade English at Northeast High School in Philedelphia.  He describes everything from his awkward first class, to his run-ins with the administration, to his struggles creating lesson plans, to the strong relationships he develops with his students.  His tone is genuine and caring throughout; his feelings and experiences are typical of any first year teacher struggling to make it in this very difficult profession.  He sweats buckets, cries, talks too much and forgets things. He breaks up fights and catches kids cheating.  He tries lessons that flop and lessons that work.  Everything he writes about are things that I experienced myself in my first year.  Through all the struggles, he comes to know what all good teachers know - that each success in the classroom makes up for the million failures that came before.   

Danza admits that his experience is easier than most teachers' first year.  He only has one class, and it's a double period.  A mentor teacher sits in the classroom and observes each day, debriefing with him after his class is over.  He only has to keep track of a small handful of kids, and he has the financial resources and connections to treat them to things like field trips.  Even with all of these advantages, Danza struggles mightily.  At one point he asks himself how teachers can do this job with a full class load.  He's right - it seems impossible sometimes to do so much for so many. All we can do is try.

One thing I loved about Danza's experience was how he handled the filming of his class.  The series based on his experience, Teach, was drastically shortened from what it was supposed to be.  The series ended up containing only six episodes.  Producers were disappointed with the lack of "usable material," which baffled Danza.  They captured his students completely engaged in interesting lessons, but this wasn't enough drama for a reality series, according to the higher-ups.  They wanted to begin scripting some tension into the show, and Danza categorically refused.  That wasn't what he was there for, he explains.  He wanted to give teaching an honest shot and help his students, not make a fake television show.  I found this to be so admirable.  I feel weird saying this, but Tony Danza seems like a really stand-up guy.

I feel a little bit of a connection to Danza.  2010 was also my first year of teaching, and it was tough.  We were probably both crying at the same time on some days.  It was nice to read something written by someone who was trying as hard as I was during that time.  He also touches on some of the political issues that plague education, like standardized testing and Adequate Yearly Progess (AYP).  These mandates bother almost everyone involved in this career, myself included.  This job can be very isolating.  Sometimes I don't get to talk to another adult for more than five minutes in a day.  It was just so comforting to read the words of someone who understands what teachers deal with and stuck out the year.        

I'd Like to Apologize was a very relatable account of a teacher's first year.  Danza's struggles, triumphs and frustrations mirror the experience of so many teachers who are trying their best to help their kids. This is a very honest picture of what it's like in public education right now, and those who want a clearer understanding of what's going on in our schools would benefit from picking this one up.   

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Columbine by Dave Cullen

As a teacher, the subject of school shootings is deeply disturbing to me.  While it's a troubling thing to consider, I've spent time thinking about what I would do if violence ever erupted at my school.  I know my school's crisis plan, of course.  If a shooter entered campus, we would go into lockdown, turn out the lights and huddle under our tables. When we drill this procedure with the kids, my heart starts beating faster as I watch them scramble onto the floor.  Just seeing what it would look like if such an event were to happen is enough to set me on edge.  I can't imagine the terror I would feel if it were all real.  This is exactly what happened at Columbine in 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates, killing 13 people and injuring 21 more in the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history.  Interested in finding out more, I picked up what critics call the definitive text on this tragedy. 

Columbine by Dave Cullen is a highly detailed account of the Columbine school massacre. It focuses on the event itself, the background of the killers, their actions leading up to the shooting, and the aftermath that rocked the small Colorado community in its wake.  Cullen's account of the attack is well-researched and excellently written.  He uses police reports, news footage, interviews and the killers' personal journals and videos in constructing his narrative.  His writing is fast-paced and immersive, making the reader feel like they are peeking over the shoulders of everyone involved in the situationReading this is interesting and heartbreaking, all at once.

One issue that stood out to me immediately as I read was how very poorly the media reported on this incident.  The whole idea of a trench-coat-wearing pair of outcasts gunning down the jock bullies that tortured them throughout high school was completely false.  Harris and Klebold were mentally ill teenagers.  Harris' writings, which weren't released until years after the incident, reveal a young psychopath, intent on showing his superiority over the human race by attempting to blow up his school.  Klebold's writings, similarly suppressed by the police for years, show that he suffered from severe depression. Their actions on April 20, 1999, are better described as a failed bombing than as a school shooting.  This  is completely different from the narrative presented by reporters and TV anchors at the time.  I was shocked to discover that most of the things I thought I knew about this tragedy were wrong.

My edition of this novel had an updated epilogue, and I appreciated Cullen's point of view throughout this section.  He describes how deeply he was affected by his investigation of this event and encourages schools and communities to focus more on diagnosing and treating teen depression.  He also takes the 24 hour news cycle to task for their near-obsessive focus on shooters, and suggests that reporters focus more on the victims in these attacks than on their killers.  Cullen also advocates for increased gun legislation, and bemoans that fact that the American public has utterly failed in creating laws strong enough to hinder teens from acquiring powerful firearms.

My one small issue with the text is how the events aren't portrayed in chronological order.  Instead, scenes from the planning and implementation of the shooting are mixed in with chapters about the aftermath of the attacks.  It become a bit difficult to follow at times.  Regardless, I stayed immersed in the story until I reached the end.

Columbine is a powerful and thought-provoking examination of a terrible tragedy. Anyone interested in true crime novels, or in the Columbine shooting itself will appreciate this account.  It is only by analyzing what happened on that awful day that we can hope to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.  I (naively) hope for a future in which violence like this doesn't exist, but until that time comes, we need books like this to show us how and why it happens. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Spark Joy by Marie Kondo

Spark Joy is a companion novel to Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  It elaborates on the system she outlined in her first book for decluttering and organizing your home and provides several illustrations to give readers a visual reference for her techniques.  While the philosophy espoused in Spark Joy is the same as in Kondo's first book, there are many more details included about how to streamline the decluttering process and several new suggestions for how to organize the items you choose to keep.  The diagrams are also very helpful in showing off some of her organization techniques, especially her method for folding different articles of clothing and organizing drawers.

I found this novel to be a useful addition to Kondo's first.  While Life-Changing Magic was very inspirational, Spark Joy provided necessary specifics about the tidying process and cleared up some points that I needed some clarification on.  For example, I wasn't sure how to deal with sorting through items that do not spark any joy within me, but are necessary (like a toothbrush, for example).  Kondo explains here that we should learn to appreciate items such as these, and understand that while the items themselves may not spark joy, they help us function in ways that lead us to joy.  In the case of the toothbrush, it cleans my teeth, which allows me to have a nice smile and avoid dental problems.  That brings me joy.

The positive, whimsical tone of Kondo's writing continues on in this book, and I enjoyed exploring her bright and optimistic world.  At one point she suggests hugging a stack of your favorite novels to determine if they spark joy within you.  She also advises the reader to store their bras alone in their own drawer and "treat them like royalty." These types of passages might be exactly what turns some readers off to Kondo's ideas, but I actually love her quirky views.  I feel like she really believes in her process when I read her words.  Her eccentricity lends additional validity to her ideas. 

Fans of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up will definitely find more to love in Spark Joy.  I think this novel is a necessary companion to the original, owing to the specific details and illustrations it contains.  I'm glad that I read this one before trying to start my de-cluttering.  I feel like I have more concrete strategies in place in my mind now.  I'm excited to roll up my sleeves and start on my own tidying project!


Monday, April 4, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

After reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, I feel like an organizing fairy godmother has flitted into my home, ready to help me transform my condo into a castle.  This slim little volume, which describes a set of principles for how to declutter and organize your home, has inspired me to roll up my sleeves and get to work.  I will fully admit that the whimsical approach Kondo takes to describe the process of organization isn't for everyone, but sure she spoke to me.

The KonMari method of tidying up has two distinct stages.  First, Kondo explains how to effectively declutter your home.  She advocates for tackling items by category rather than by room. For example, she recommends taking all of one type of item that you own, such as clothing, and lay it all out on the floor in front of you.  Next, you should handle every single item and ask yourself if the item gives you joy.  If the answer is no, then the item goes into the donate/discard pile.  After completing this process, the second stage of the method begins and you put everything you have left away neatly.  Then you move onto the next category of items.  As you move from category to category, you eventually get everything in its proper place and toss out tons of stuff you didn't really need.  This process, she believes, only needs to be done once in a lifetime.  If done correctly, it can transform your life.

I connected with Kondo's words because I found them to be both gentle and common sense.  Her writing comes across like the advice of a supportive friend, encouraging you and calling you out when necessary.  She explains how there's no need to feel shame in getting rid of items that are still "good."  She says that each item that comes into our lives had a purpose and once that item has served its purpose, it's okay to let it go.  I liked this reassurance because I definitely feel guilty at the thought of throwing away something I once spent money on or that I could still possibly use . . . maybe . . . one day . . . (probably not).

Kondo's easygoing logic makes me feel like I could really go through the whole process and change my life by simply tidying up.  That idea sounded weird to me when I first heard it, but Kondo's passion for organization made me a believer.  Some of her tips, like thanking your belongings after you use them, were a little hippy-dippy for me, but I love the idea of doing that.  It paints a lovely picture of the world, in which jackets are happy to stretch across our shoulders and purses enjoy when you clean them out.  I can't bring myself to honestly believe that, but I kind of wish it were true. 

I definitely enjoyed this book.  Its companion novel, Spark Joy, is next on my reading list.  I'm inspired to go through my own possessions and tidy up after reading, which I suppose it the best endorsement possible for a book about organization.  I'm going to try it.

I'll close with my favorite bit of advice  in the novel -- Kondo specifically mentions that you shouldn't let your mother see what items you are discarding during your cleanup. Mothers tend to try and rescue things from your trash pile.  So true.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

To kick off my month of nonfiction reading, I read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  As someone who is not religious or particularly spiritual, the admittedly uncomfortable subject matter didn't bother me too much.  Instead, I was ready to learn all kind of interesting facts about how bodies are used in science and medicine.  I was not disappointed.  This book is one of the most entertaining informational novels that I have ever read.

Stiff is all about the different things that happen to our bodies after we die.  Each chapter focuses on a different topic ranging from educational dissections for med students, to research on body decomposition, to organ donation, to cannibalism and more.  Roach maintains a good sense of humor throughout the book, and her light tone manages to both be respectful of the cadavers she writes about and light enough to keep the information she conveys from becoming too morbid.  Through some truly funny writing, she strikes a good balance between being educational and being just like "one of us," a regular person asking all the impertinent questions we would be afraid to ask of the doctors, morticians, scientists, etc. that she interviewed and observed.  For example, with some determined questioning, she gets a research scientist at a body farm to admit that dead bodies, can, in fact, fart as they decompose.  These are the questions we need answered, people!

I found most of the chapters extremely interesting, and zipped through this book just as quickly as I would do with a fiction novel.  It was anything but boring, which was one of my worries when I decided to limit myself to nonfiction for an entire month.  I also made a strong connection with Roach's personal feelings towards the dead.  Like me, she is not religious and takes a practical point of view towards dead bodies.  She doesn't preach too much throughout the book, but it is clear that she believes that there is no disrespect in using cadavers to help the living, whether it's through donating organs, being dissected by medical students or being used to test the durability of bullet proof vests for the army.  I totally agree with her way of thinking, so I was able to experience the treat of reading the words of someone who seemed like a friend, or at least, someone I could have a great conversation with. 

Stiff was a wonderful book that I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in all the things that happen to our bodies once we vacate them.  The world is a weird place, and this novel shines a flashlight onto a piece of it that most of us know nothing about. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

April Reading List: Nonfiction

I've decided to focus on nonfiction novels during the month of April.  I have no problems reading nonfiction books, but I am naturally drawn more to fiction when I'm choosing what I want to read next.  In order to try out something new, everything I read in April will be informational.

When pulling selections from my shelves for this month, I quickly discovered that while I don't tend to read a whole lot of nonfiction, I certainly have no trouble buying nonfiction.  I have a stack of books by my nightstand so tall that I could never hope to finish them all in one month.  I decided to prioritize and choose six that I definitely want to read, and added the rest onto my list as bonus reads.  I'll see how many I can get to before my time runs out.

Here are my nonfiction "must-reads" for the month:

Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach - This book talks about the various ways science and medicine use our dead bodies.  This one is supposed to be interesting as well as funny, and it's the one I'm looking forward to the most, oddly enough.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo - These two novels, which became intensely popular last year, focus on giving people advice on how to organize their homes.  I'm hoping that these will inspire me to clean out some of the not-so-tidy areas of my own house.

Columbine by Dave Cullen - The novel discusses the details of the Columbine school shooting.  As a teacher, this is a topic that lurks in the back of my mind from time to time.  I'm interested to read the complete story.

I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza - Actor Tony Danza decided to become a high school English teacher.  This is his account of his first year teaching.  I briefly watched the reality show of his experience, and it was surprisingly good, so I thought I'd give the book a try.

Dirty Old London, The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson - This novel explores how people from the Victorian time period dealt with sanitation issues.  This promises to be a weird and interesting read.

Bonus Round Books:

True Notebooks, A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman
Popular, Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

Okay, time to get learning... 

March 2016 Wrap Up

My month of reading about strong women went pretty well.  I made it through several novels, both fiction and nonfiction, that featured women at their best.  Across everything I read, one theme emerged- the idea of leaving fear behind and taking risks.  Agnes Grey and Jane Goodall both didn't let anyone stop them as they broke through the barriers of their time periods and began careers.  Jenny Lawson and Fig both found ways to cope with their mental illness and keep on living.  Elizabeth Gilbert and Erin Gruwell used creative thinking and determination to veer away from the ordinary and accomplish incredible things.  When I look over everything I read this month, the connections between the stories, both real and fantasy, are everywhere.  To be successful, especially as a woman, is to stop being afraid.

Books Read
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell
Jane Goodall by Dale Peterson
Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Best of the Month: Fig
Worst of the Month: Big Magic, Black Dove, White Raven

New Record - Longest Book I've Ever Read for Pleasure:
Jane Goodall (714 pages)

Super-Inspiring Reads:
How to be a Heroine
The Freedom Writers Diary
Jane Goodall

Books I didn't get to, but am saving for later:
None - I got to everything this month!

New Favorites:
Fig, How To Be a Heroine

This has been a really enlightening month of reading for me.  Logically, I know the mechanics of how to be strong and brave. I know the kind of stuff that I should be doing. Reading examples of strength and bravery, however, gives me a much stronger push in the right direction.  I've got a professional opportunity in the works right now, and this month has made by feel capable of pursuing it.

I absolutely love seeing how my reading life is creeping into my real life.  I've always considered reading to be my escape from reality, but maybe I should be considering it as something more essential to it.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is an author that I pay special attention to, because her first novel, Code Name Verity, is one of my favorite young adult novels of all time.  That book, a historical fiction story about two young girls set during WWII, ripped my heart out with its intricate and emotional plot.  It's companion novel that followed, Rose Under Fire, was not quite as good as the novel that preceded it, but it was still excellent and well worth the read.  When I saw that Wein had another WWII historical fiction novel coming out, I picked it up immediately. As this was going to be my last book in March (my strong woman reading month), and it centered around mostly female characters, I thought this was a safe choice to end on.  Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in this one.

Black Dove, White Raven tells the story of Emilia (Em) and Teodros (Teo), childhood friends raised as brother and sister during the 1920s-30s.  Their mothers were stunt pilots (of the barnstorming/wing walking variety) and they all traveled the U.S.A. together, putting on shows.  Their mothers adopted the stage names Black Dove and White Raven, playing up on the fact that Teo's mother was black and Emilia's mother was white.  When Teo's mother Delia is killed in a bird strike accident, Emilia's mother Rhoda adopts him.  Eager to try and provide a life free from discrimination for her now-interracial family, Rhoda moves herself and the kids to Ethiopia, where they are eventually drawn into the conflict between Ethiopia and Italy in the time period leading up to WWII.

One point in Black Dove, White Raven's favor was its historical aspects.  I knew nothing about the war between Italy and Ethiopia during this time period, so it was interesting to read about this part of history.  I also enjoyed the portrait Wein painted of life in Ethiopia, which appeared to be simple, spiritual and beautiful. After reading Jane Goodall's biography a week prior to this, some of the cultural aspects of Africa that she discussed felt a bit familiar, even.

However, almost every other aspect of the book was disappointing.  Wein's characterization, usually one of her strengths, was very weak.  Emilia and Teo were supposed to be the stars of the show, but I found them both to be rather dull and flat characters.  The story is told through their school assignments and flight logs, in alternating chunks.  Their voices are indeed different from one another, but neither one was compelling, and I didn't connect with the deep friendship they supposedly felt towards each other.  Also, the conceit of using school assignments and flight logs to tell the story was unsuccessful because no one writes school assignments or flight logs with the level of reflection and detail that the two characters used.  It took me right out of the story as it wasn't even close to being believable as a way to narrate.  Wein would have been much better off having Em and Teo writing in journals or just alternating plain old first person narration.

The plot was meandering and boring, which is not a word I like to use when I review books.  There's no other way to explain my feelings on this one though.  It takes over half of the book for the actual plot to get started, and once the interesting stuff started, it felt very rushed.  The ending is vague and weird, and seemed to show an odd separation between Em and Teo that hadn't appeared in the novel prior to the closing pages.

The more interesting characters throughout the novel were Delia and Rhoda, the mothers.  I would have rather read a novel about them meeting and becoming stunt pilots than what we got.  It seemed obvious to me that the two characters were deeply in love with each other, but perhaps Wein was afraid to go too far down that road.  It's too bad, because that relationship would have added another layer of complexity to the story.

Ultimately, Black Dove, White Raven was okay, but nothing special.  If it wasn't for the magic of Wein's other novels, I probably wouldn't be interested in reading more of her work after reading this one.  It does succeed as a novel featuring strong female characters, but those characters remained too flat for too much of the book.  I just couldn't connect with this one.